All girls aged 12 to 13 are offered HPV (human papilloma virus) vaccination as part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme. The vaccine protects against cervical cancer. It’s usually given to girls in year eight at schools in England.
According to Cancer Research UK, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women under the age of 35. In the UK, 2,900 women a year are diagnosed with cervical cancer.
It is estimated that about 400 lives could be saved every year in the UK as a result of vaccinating girls before they are infected with HPV.
The HPV vaccine is delivered largely through secondary schools, and consists of three injections over a period of 12 months.
Research has shown that the HPV vaccine provides effective protection for at least eight years after completion of the three-dose course. It is not known yet how long protection will last beyond this time.
What is HPV?
The human papilloma virus (HPV) is the name given to a family of viruses.
Different types of HPV are classed as either high-risk or low-risk, depending on the conditions they can cause. For instance, some types of HPV can cause warts or verrucas. Other types are associated with cervical cancer.
In 99% of cases, cervical cancer occurs as a result of a history of infection with high-risk types of HPV. Often, infection with the HPV causes no symptoms.
How is HPV infection spread?
The HPV virus is very common and is easily spread by sexual activity. As much as half the population will be infected at some time in their life. In most cases, the virus doesn’t do any harm because your immune system gets rid of the infection. But in some cases, the infection persists and can lead to health problems.
Although most girls don’t start having sex until after they’re 16 years of age, it’s important that they get this protection early enough and a good time is in the teenage years – getting the vaccine as early as possible will protect them in the future.
Using a condom during sex can help to prevent HPV infection. However, as condoms do not cover the entire genital area and are often put on after sexual contact has begun, a condom is no guarantee against the spread of HPV.
Different types of HPV and what they do
There are over 100 different types of HPV, with around 40 types that affect the genital area.
Infection with some high-risk types of HPV can cause abnormal tissue growth as well as other cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer.
Infection with other types of HPV may cause:
- genital warts: small growths or skin changes on or around the genital or anal area, these are the most common viral sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the UK
- skin warts and verrucas
- vaginal cancer or vulval cancer (although these types of cancer are rare)
- anal cancer or cancer of the penis
- some cancers of the head and neck
- laryngeal papillomas (warts on the voice box or vocal cords)
For more information see Why is the HPV vaccine needed?
How the HPV vaccine helps
A vaccine called Gardasil vaccine is used in the national NHS cervical cancer vaccination programme. Gardasil protects against the two types of HPV responsible for more than 70% of cervical cancers in the UK.
A bonus of using Gardasil to prevent cervical cancer is that it prevents genital warts too.
Current research suggests the HPV vaccine is protective for at least seven years.
Which girls should have the HPV vaccination?
The HPV vaccine is part of the NHS childhood vaccination programme and is routinely offered to secondary school girls aged 12 and 13.
It’s a safe vaccine and there are very few girls who aren’t suitable for HPV vaccination. However, special precautions may need to be taken if the girl being vaccinated has certain health conditions, or has ever had a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis).
Read more about who should have the HPV vaccine.
The HPV vaccine is given as a series of three injections within a 12-month period.
Learn more about how the HPV vaccine is given.
Cervical screening and the HPV vaccine
Cervical screening is a way of picking up abnormal cells in the cervix before they progress to cancer. It’s been shown that early detection and treatment of cervical abnormalities picked up by screening can prevent three-quarters of cervical cancers.
The NHS cervical screening programme involves checking women between the ages of 25 and 64 every three to five years for early cervical abnormalities.
Regular cervical screening is the best way to identify abnormal cell changes in the cervix. So it’s important that all girls who receive the HPV vaccine also have regular cervical screening once they reach the age of 25.
Now, read why it’s so important for 12-13 year-old girls to receive the HPV vaccination and find out more about the safety of the HPV vaccine.